Answering Fair Housing Questions About Criminal History Screening

How does your staff answer questions about rental applications and criminal history screening? What fair housing implications do you need to be aware of? Join us as we answer these questions to help you stay fair housing compliant.

Hand holding a pen filling out a rental application that has a criminal background section

Estimated reading time: 3 minutes

Criminal history screening has been a hot topic for many years, and it’s not slowing down. While there are multiple facets to this complicated issue, we will focus on the most common one that leasing professionals come across and need to know how to handle correctly. 

I Have a Criminal History – Should I Apply?

This question has led to many fair housing lawsuits. A prospect is interested in a unit but informs the leasing agent that they have a criminal record and asks whether it will affect their approval. Should they even bother filling out the application and paying the fee? It may seem benign and a reasonable question to ask, especially when an application fee is involved but answering the wrong way can lead to a discrimination claim. 

Many may feel that telling a prospect that they probably won’t be accepted based on this and not waste their time or money would be the kind or fair thing to do. These exact responses are the ones being used in lawsuits that claim discrimination and call into question a company’s policy regarding criminal history screening. Dissuading a prospect from completing an application based on their criminal history can be misconstrued as discrimination, even if it’s with the best intentions.

Fair Housing Best Practices

It is never a good idea to discourage anyone from completing a rental application. It’s helpful to remember that it’s not up to the individual leasing agent whether that person will be accepted or not. It’s not their call. Most companies use a third-party screening service to determine eligibility, which helps take the pressure off the leasing agent. So when staff is asked whether they think the application will be approved, the reply simply needs to be: “I don’t know, it’s not up to me, but I hope so!”

A note of caution when answering these types of questions on the phone. Criminal history inquiries are a favorite for fair housing testers. It’s easy to get flustered and start rattling off your company’s whole criminal history policy. Resist the urge to over-explain. Staff should respond the same they would in person. Inform the caller that everyone is welcome to apply and that the final decision is again not up to the leasing agent.

Fair Housing Final Takeaway

Be careful when answering questions about your criminal history policy. 

  • Don’t offer an opinion about whether an application will be accepted.
  • Don’t simplify your policy and state that your property doesn’t accept people with a criminal history.

Instead, encourage everyone to apply, and the screening process will determine whether they qualify. Following these simple steps can help ensure fair housing compliance regarding criminal history screening.

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